Under English head coach Mike Friday, the Eagles’ fortunes have been transformed and the United States are now genuine contenders in a landmark summer for the sport of rugby sevens
Hollywood producers love an unlikely sporting success story, and if the USA men’s sevens team manage a podium finish at the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, when the discipline makes its Games debut in August, there is every chance it will be given the full silver-screen treatment. But before the scriptwriters feel compelled to take up their pens, they will be watching with interest to see if the USA prove their worth at the home leg of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series in Las Vegas.
The side’s straight-talking head coach, Mike Friday, the ex-England sevens captain who transformed his country’s and then Kenya’s fortunes before taking the American gig a year and a half ago, is not a man prone to flights of fancy, and knows his team must up their game if they are to challenge the established elite. However, when asked about who would play him in the prospective blockbuster movie, he quickly replies, with a grin: “Tom Hardy, hopefully.” It would be a good fit.
Friday was approached by USA Rugby CEO Nigel Melville – once England’s youngest XV-a-side captain – just over 18 months ago, after the team finished the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series 2013-14 in a disappointing 12th place. Melville, who knew Friday when the pair were director of rugby and player at London Wasps respectively 16 years ago, was clear in his demands.
“Melville said: ‘We have to qualify for the Olympics.’ There was no ‘can we’,” recalls Friday, who had taken Kenya to fifth in the world rankings. “I was interested in the role, and took the job because for me life is all about challenges and trying to help the underdog realise its potential. I’ve always been interested in the USA; the players have got the right athletic ability, but I was intrigued as to why they were not performing as well as their talents suggested they should be.”
The 43-year-old former scrum-half found that with his old mucker Melville as boss it meant there was “less friction” and he was trusted to work his magic.
American sports fans are famous for their number-crunching, however, and those that did “the math” were doubtful that the Eagles could gain a coveted berth at the Olympics, at least when Friday took charge. “They love a stat, the Americans, and they had worked out that we had less than a 10 per cent chance of qualifying for Rio,” Friday says.
“They reckoned that Canada – our main regional rivals – had a 90 per cent chance of beating us, all the time, and that there was no way we would win against the top four in the Sevens Series… stern odds.”
In May, at the concluding London leg of the last HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series, the USA took away the main trophy, and were the best team of the weekend by some distanc
In the final they trounced Australia 45-22, though in the cup semi-final against hosts England they were particularly dominant, winning 43-12. It was the country’s maiden title, sparking jubilant scenes, and in the process they claimed sixth place in the final standings. Not bad for Friday’s first season in charge.
There was even better to come. Two months later, in Cary, North Carolina, that new-found confidence helped the USA defeat Canada 21-5 to secure qualification for Rio. Despite the success, and achieving the target he was employed for, Friday is unsatisfied, typically. “I should be really happy, as we are progressing and moving forward,” he says, teeing up the “but”…
“Those missed chances really frustrate me, because I expect and want more for the team.”
He is not the only one. “After winning in London, USA Rugby and the public expect us to be winning every tournament now,” Friday says. “And that has brought a different type of pressure for the boys. Previously they were not used to making quarter-finals regularly, and so far this season we have struggled at key, high-pressure moments. We need to be more technically and tactically accurate at these times. And I’m not resting until we get it right.”
Back in summer 2014 there were serious issues to overcome, according to Friday, including that psychological naivety.
“They were rudderless, in terms of direction. The culture and environment drastically needed to change. There was a huge tactical gap in terms of what the players knew and what they needed to understand, mostly because – unlike in England, New Zealand, Australia and so on – the players didn’t pick up the basic rugby skills when they were younger, having concentrated their efforts on American football, basketball or baseball. So we spent a lot of time educating the players, on the pitch and in the classroom, too.”
And then there were more stats to contend with. “It’s symptomatic of American sports, but athletes are so driven by their individual stats, not the team’s stats. There is a big difference, so altering that mindset so they were pulling in the right direction was a challenge,” Friday says.
“Also, I had to teach them that I didn’t want a coach-tell environment, where the coach is always right, which is another aspect of American sports. You want to be challenged, with thought, reason and in the right way.
“On top of that there was a communication breakdown, because of all the different cultures and factions within the side. I never anticipated that there would be tensions, because in every tournament squad of 12 they would be eight or nine different cultures. It was a mirror image of America; there were always cracks in the team because of the perception of how things were said, rather than having real clarity and understanding. They have to be prepared to compromise some of the time.”
On the eve of Friday’s first tournament in charge of the USA, the Gold Coast event in Oct 2014, he identified Madison Hughes as his captain, partly because of his diplomatic skills – “he is a diligent, clever player, and an excellent mediator,” the head coach suggests.
It was a brave call: at just 21, the scrum-half was the youngest player in the team by a distance. Yet it was the playmaker, schooled at top English private school Wellington College (and winners of the Rosslyn Park National Schools Sevens in 2008, with Hughes pulling the strings), who has become the Eagles’ talisman.
Now 23, Hughes is quick to laud his coach. “He’s very straight on, and will tell you exactly how he sees it; that has had a monumental effect on our team, and inspires confidence in us as individuals and as a collective,” he says. “Mike has focused on technical aspects, but, moreover, helped give us a mental edge which was missing at times previously.
“Before Mike took over, the team would think a quarter-final finish would be a good achievement, but that has changed now. He has basically taken the same group of players from 12th to sixth in the space of a year. He has the ability to bring the best out of his players, and to me he is the best sevens coach in the world. I don’t think there are too many out there who would argue with that.”
Most notably Friday, who has used personality tests so the players can better understand themselves and each other better, has helped nurture the talents of two of the quickest players on the Sevens Series circuit, in Carlin Isles, once a sprinter who narrowly missed out on selection for the 2008 Olympics, and Perry Baker, an American footballer.
The pair are not yet the finished article, but they are significantly more polished thanks to their head coach’s guidance. But their late arrival to rugby highlights a challenge which may yet see Friday extend his stay in America after the Rio Games, when his contract is due to expire.
According to USA Rugby there were more than 100,000 registered players across America in the 2014-15 season, including 9,913 at youth and 31,895 at high-school levels. By comparison, almost a million more played American football at high school in the same academic year, ahead of basketball (550,000) and baseball (435,000).
With the USA Rugby headquarters located in Boulder, Colorado, at times Friday feels as though he is between a rock and a hard place, trying to realise the country’s potential – in sevens and XVs – and rouse what he labels a “sleeping giant”. That giant could soon be walking tall.
This article was first published in The Telegraph in March 2016